Today is Palm Sunday and I am guessing that most churches, even the most non-liturgical, will be acknowledging it despite the fact that some folks are already posting invitations to their church’s Easter service on Facebook. A case of the I-don’t-want-to-go-through-the-uncomfortableness-of-Christ’s-death-but-want-to-get-right-to-the-happy-resurrection disease that seems to spring up each year about this time. Nonetheless, contrary to what anyone thinks, we must go through the Triumphal Entry, the last Passover (or first Eucharist) and the Good Friday of Christ’s death before we can rest comfortably in the arms of the resurrected Jesus Christ. This was the order of Jesus’ last pre-resurrection week so we too seek to emulate his own via dolorosa. Sure, Lent is the whole forty day journey but these last days and miles of the journey are the most intense yet and the Christian church only does herself a disfavor if she ignores these Christological route markers.
Yet, we do not engage in the act of remembrance merely as an exercise in mental recollection. Rather, like the Holy Eucharist, we remember in order to enter into the event itself. In the words of Augustine of Hippo, “This power of memory is great, very great, my God. It is a vast and infinite profundity” (Confessions X.viii.15). We remember in order to ascend to God. Again, Augustine is a good guide:
I will therefore rise above that natural capacity in a step by step ascent to him who made me. I come to the fields and vast palaces of memory, where are the treasuries of innumerable images of all kinds of objects brought in by sense-perception. Hidden there is whatever we think about, a process which may increase or diminish or in some way alter the deliverance of the sense and whatever else has been deposited and placed on reserve and has not been swallowed up and buried in oblivion.
We must and we are able to recover these memories and use them to build a ladder to God, for he was the one who has been guiding us the whole way. Thus, each memory is a marker on our map to God.
It is because of such a profound understanding of memory, that we do not simply remember Palm Sunday because it is a good thing to do. Rather, there is something deep that we can learn from Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Despite receiving the “royal treatment” on his way into Jerusalem, five days later Christ would suffer the ultimate humiliation as the incarnate Son of God. This week, for Jesus, was one of going from exaltation (Matt. 21:9 – “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”) to humiliation (Gal. 3:13 – “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”). This pendulum swing from high to low was already familiar to Jesus Christ because it was not his first experience of humiliation: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5-8).
In this way Jesus the Messiah is an example to us. In fact, in the words of John Calvin, he is a mirror: “As, then, a mirror, though it has splendor, has it not for itself, but with the view of its being advantageous and profitable to others, so Christ did not seek or receive anything for himself, but everything for us” (John Calvin, Commentary on Philippians 2:9). We look into the mirror of Christ and we are confronted with our pride while also seeing in this mirror the humility of Christ that can be ours. And what does this look like? Again, John Calvin provides an answer: “Christ’s humility consisted in his abasing himself from the highest pinnacle of glory to the lowest ignominy: our humility consists in refraining from exalting ourselves by a false estimation. He gave up his right: all that is required of us is, that we do not assume to ourselves more than we ought” (John Calvin, Commentary on Philippians 2:6).
Jesus Christ was not humbled once, but twice so we too should be open to being humbled, not once but over and over again. As the Anglican priest and theologian Henry Airay says, “Christ was abased and humbled both according to his Godhead and his humanity. (1) For his humanity it appears, in that it was made subject to the weaknesses of human nature, as also to the miseries and punishments which were due to humanity for sin. (2) For his Godhead, it was also abased, not as it is considered in itself—for so it is immutable—but in respect of the veil of the flesh, under which it was so covered that it lay hidden from the first moment of Christ’s incarnation to the time of his resurrection, without any great manifestation of his power and majesty therein” (Lectures on Philippians 2:8).
Given Jesus’ dual-humbling there seems to be something important for us to learn – humility! And perhaps there is no better time to remember this than on Palm Sunday, the day when Jesus was regally welcomed into Jerusalem. That day when the Son of God was shown the respect that he deserved. That day when truth was proclaimed: “Blessed is he.” That day, however, when he also began his journey to the cross with great intentionally. That day when he chose no longer to avoid his accusers but to walk right into their midst. Palm Sunday is not just a day to have children wave palm branches in the air (though that would be good liturgically) but the day when we must remember that Jesus Christ’s journey was one of humility and that must characterize our own journey too. We remember Jesus’ humility so that we too will follow the road marker of humility on our own journey to union with God. It is the feast day of humility! Therefore, let us keep the feast!